Can Detroit balance parking for small business, big events?
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Cliff Bell's co-owner Paul Howard says affordable parking near the jazz club depends on parking lot owners, whose rates and hours tend to center on major events.
Photo: KENNY CORBIN
The weather is hot, the Tigers are hot, but some downtown bar and restaurant owners are just hot under the collar.
The owners say their businesses suffer when parking prices rise to $20-$25 for home games and other events -- and occasionally up to $50 or more -- while parking lot owners say they need that income to stay in the black and offset lower rates at other times.
Limited nearby street parking and the lack of mass transit also contribute to the problem.
Paul Howard, co-owner of Cliff Bell's in Foxtown, said that even though the jazz club is located in a sea of parking lots, he can't be certain there will be affordable parking on event days, or that parking lots will be open on non-event days.
"We know what the deal is. We are at the whim of the parking lot owners," Howard said. "They open at their own discretion, and that's a problem for us, but it goes with the territory."
Howard said his business relies on street parking and the parking lots surrounding it, which are mostly owned by Detroit-based Olympia Development and are mainly open on weekends or event days.
Eric Larson, non-executive president of Olympia Development, said it's difficult for parking lot owners to meet the needs of the businesses around them while making money as a private enterprise.
"We try to identify when the demand is being generated, what the nature of demand is -- to see who is it we are trying to serve and how best to do that -- while at the same time recognizing there is a cost associated with operating it and parking," Larson said.
What Olympia does matters. Its parking services division operates 35 surface lots and three parking garages, with approximately 7,861 total parking spaces in Detroit -- 4,500 of them surrounding Comerica Park and the Fox Theatre.
In comparison, the city of Detroit has seven public parking garages that are open daily, with a total of about 3,120 spaces.
Fluctuating rates are a sore spot for restaurant owners and their customers.
"We could do twice as much business on event days than we do, but we can't," said Brian Pastoria, owner of UDetroit Café. "If an artist wants to come to UDetroit to play a show, he has to pay $40 to park. We tell them, park somewhere else and we will pick you up."
The parking meters in Foxtown and Paradise Valley, formerly known as Harmonie Park, have a two-hour limit and cost $1 per hour.
Jerry Belanger, owner of the Park Bar at Elizabeth and Park streets, said the large lot owners simply don't see the impact of parking on independent bars and restaurants.
"I don't think they wake up and say, 'Hey, let's crush these small businesses,' " Belanger said. "But they are so large that if you are too small, they will crush you. ... They don't see the impact of their actions."
Supply and demand
The largest upticks in prices center on dates with multiple special events downtown.
On the day of the Detroit Tigers' home opener this year, Pastoria said he saw rates at a local valet service near UDetroit Café start at $40 and jump to $80 by early afternoon.
But Nick Abraham, co-owner of Detroit-based Woodward Parking Co. Inc. and Handy Parking Inc., said while business owners and city visitors are typically most concerned about special-event pricing, he has lowered overall parking rates since 2008.
"People see event prices and focus on that, but what they don't realize is we have reduced the rates by more than 20 percent over the years," Abraham said.
He says daytime rates for his parking lots used to hover around $7 dollars a day, and now the average rate is about $5.
Abraham said companies leaving downtown Detroit in the mid-2000s -- J. Walter Thompson for Dearborn and Comerica for Dallas -- caused the decline in parking rates, and the recent influx of employers hasn't totally reversed the trend for his lots.
Abraham and his wife, Lorna, co-own 20 parking lots and structures throughout Detroit.
A core issue in the conversations about Detroit parking is that Detroiters and visitors typically don't feel comfortable walking more than a few blocks because the streets often can feel deserted, city planners and business groups say.
"In other cities, people will walk, but here, people want to park as close to the businesses as they can," said Ashok Patel, project manager for the Detroit Public Works traffic-engineering division.
And more crime is related to street parking than is commonly perceived.
According to the website Crimemapping.com, which provides information about recent crime activity by area, 384 car thefts and/or break-ins were reported Jan. 7-July 2 within a one-mile radius of Campus Martius Park.
Now-retired Detroit Police Department Cmdr. Kenny Williams said about 92 percent of cars burglarized or stolen in Detroit are parked on the street, while only 2 percent of vehicles stolen are taken from attended parking lots, which was why he decided to ban street parking along a number of key streets during an unusually busy weekend in January.
On Jan. 6-8, 44 cars were broken into in the Foxtown area, west of Woodward Avenue and south of I-75 behind the Fox Theatre.
With more than 200,000 people visiting the city over that wintry weekend for the North American International Auto Show, a rap concert and a Detroit Red Wings game, Williams decided it would be better to end street parking from Thursday, Jan. 12, to Sunday, Jan. 15, rather than risk another round of larceny.
Williams held a meeting with the local parking lot owners to tell them his plan. In all, Williams said he towed 20 cars on the evening of Jan. 12. Williams said no cars were broken into the rest of that weekend. But business owners said the expense and inconvenience to customers was a problem.
Belanger said the mass towing was a failed experiment because it left visitors with a negative experience and perception of the city.
An outdated ordinance
Parking lot rates are governed by the Detroit City Code of Ordinances, but the laws specific to parking date back to the city's 1964 code and have not been updated since 1987. The guidelines on special-event parking prices, in particular, are unclear, said Kevin Jones, manager of the Business License Center for the city of Detroit.
"Ever since Tiger Stadium was torn down (in 2008-09), that section was voided," Jones said. "City Council was talking about changing it but never did, so we do not recognize a special-event rate."
Parking lot owners are supposed to submit a detailed rate sheet to the city but are not required to post a rate schedule at lots, Jones said.
In practice, though, that submission requirement hasn't been enforced since at least Super Bowl XL in 2006.
Lot owners and city groups say they are trying to improve things.
"We are trying to work with our venues to try to create opportunities for people to park in lots that are attended, lit and secure at a rate that is competitive," said Olympia's Larson.
Shawny DeBerry, director of the city's Municipal Parking Department, said two dynamics are at play: availability and safety.
While the police department has the authority to limit parking on some streets to try to reduce larceny, DeBerry says she also wants to re-think metered parking.
In Foxtown, for instance, DeBerry wants to install new meters that would allow people to use the street as if it were a parking garage.
"I would like to see four-hour parking on the street or something to that effect," DeBerry said. "We want to give people an ample amount of time, since we don't have a lot of parking facilities."
DeBerry said her department is looking for other areas in which to create more metered parking, which would serve as competition to independent parking lots and help keep rates down.
"What we are doing is first evaluating all of the available parking that's downtown," she said. "If we see a place where meters can go, we talk to the traffic engineering department to ask if they agree."
Density is the answer
A longer-term solution is more people and more retail business.
Bob Gregory, senior vice president of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, says an increase in both could clear up a lot of the issues. Downtown Detroit is made up of pockets of density, with little activity taking place between. He says once those areas are connected, many concerns, like parking too far from a destination or being the victim of a smash-and-grab, will fade.
Gregory said the DDP also is talking with the police department, local business owners and parking lot owners about potential solutions to the parking problems.
"We need a comprehensive plan," Gregory said. "The plan needs to look at key activity centers, where people should park, where are they parking now and what parking will be like after M1 Rail (the planned light rail line on Woodward Avenue) enters the picture."
The DDP also is working to add more retail, restaurants, bars and residential buildings to the central business district. Gregory said about 5,000 people live in the district, the one-square-mile area bounded by the Lodge Freeway, Fisher Freeway, I-375 and the Detroit River.
Gregory expects the central business district to add another 5,000 residents within five years for a total of 15,000 residents by 2022, with retail growing with the population.
He said the goal is to create a dense residential district between Campus Martius and Grand Circus, including Capitol Park, which is slated for a major redevelopment by Karp and Associates LLC of Lansing that will include a mixed-use development of apartments, retail and office space.
"The more people (that) are on the street, the better and safer it will be to park and walk," Gregory said. "Once the city is more walkable, the dependence on parking and parking close to where you are going will lessen."
Nathan Skid: (313) 446-1654, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NateSkid